While in Ottawa I was happy to attend a performance by the JACK Quartet as part of the Ottawa Chamberfest. The JACK Quartet is close to my heart, first because its members were my Eastman undergraduate colleagues, and second because I am writing them a new quartet called Witness. I started the quartet while in residence at the Camargo Foundation in France, hit the pause button to compose two Sandburg Songs, and am ready to resume the composition with renewed inspiration from this excellent Ottawa performance.
The concert began with a performance of Berlin-based composer Marc Sabat’s 2011 work, Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery. Sabat’s exploration of microtones led to some interesting colors and sound transformations over the course of the work’s five interconnected movements. For example, in the opening movement the sound gradually morphed from the clear resonance of open strings to a somewhat darker, hazier timbre through precise retuning of the instruments’ open strings. It was as if a translucent cotton veil was gradually drawn over the performers. In a later movement Sabat relied on harmonics to create a silvery sheen. Most striking were the stratospherically high artificial harmonics in the violins, which, combined with certain rhythmic patterns and the homophonic texture, gave an almost Renaissance music quality to the piece.
John Zorn’s The Alchemist offered a great contrast to Sabat’s work, and it was smart programming to pair these two pieces. If Sabat’s music was interested in process and evolution, Zorn’s was about collage, interruption, quotation, splicing, overlay, and humor. I would say a lot of humor. The net effect of the piece was something like looking into a kaleidoscope (Remember those?) and randomly turning it to produce a series of vague memories from your life experience. Wile E. Coyote was falling off a cliff but instead would land inside a great gothic cathedral with a quiet organ prelude emerging from the balcony. This is music that keeps the listeners on their toes. And the performers? Well, they were busy throughout with fantastic spiky pizzicati and daring rhythmic flourishes. It was an entertaining, mind-cleansing experience.
There was a decent sized audience for this performance, but I was dismayed that a couple people decided to walk out early in the performance or—as was the case with the woman in front of me—to read a book. They missed out by not sticking around. Not all pieces develop at the same pace, and not all pieces can be listened to in the same way. But it has been very rare for me to have heard an entire work and found it to have no interesting, beautiful, or thoughtful moments.